Saturday, May 4, 2013

"E" is for elegance.

Grandma, a long, long time ago

(Note: This essay originally appeared in the Des Moines Register. When I was trying yesterday to come up with a topic that started with "E," my husband said, "How about 'elegance'? You've always said your grandma was the most elegant person you've ever known. Write about her."  I think she would have liked this piece, so I'm recycling it.)

Eleven years ago Christmas, my grandmother died. The date is significant: My grandmother was a diva before the word entered the vernacular, and family members joke that she wanted to make darned sure no one forgot the anniversary of her death.

Even more significant to me, though, is the fact that she wasn't my grandmother at all, not if you're a purist who would classify a grandmother as a flesh-and-blood relative. But Louise Renda Gyldenvand was more a grandparent to me than any of my "real" grandparents, most of whom died before I knew them.

Grandma came into my life shortly after I arrived. Her son was preparing to marry my sister, who is 20 years older than I. The first mention of her is in my baby diary, written by my sister because our mother was ill after my birth. "Louise brought a beautiful velvet romper suit from Younkers," the entry reads. "Lisa is so chubby I'm afraid she has already outgrown it."

As also is chronicled in my baby diary, my mother never shook the infection that took hold of her when I was a newborn, and cancer claimed her when I was 4. My sister and brother-in-law, Teresa and Jon, took me in and raised me; they took my father in as well. And they started their own family soon after, giving me siblings.

Into this confusion swept Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandma's parents, Nana and Papa. Nana and Papa, John and Elizabeth Renda, lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa. In the two houses that made up their little compound on Des Moines' west side, I became the princess.

Whenever anyone says, "Oh, it's so sad that your mom died when you were little," I wish that person could have known the kindness with which my new relatives treated me. Part of their regard for me was, I believe, borne of their being Italian. Children are revered in the Italian culture. There is no such thing as "seen but not heard."

Every Sunday at noon, when we walked into Nana and Papa's house for dinner, I was handed peanut M&Ms and a Pepsi, even though I made a mess every time by dropping the candies in the soda to watch their colored shells dissolve. And although I was too little for the Chinese checker game in the foyer closet, I could play with the marbles, even if I had lost some the previous time.

It's impossible to approach Christmas without thinking of them -- in particular, Grandma. Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was a child's wonderland come to life: elegant tree, presents and trays upon trays of sweets. And there was Grandma herself, elegance personified -- lacy apron over festive pantsuit, planting kisses on our cheeks, sometimes leaving traces of lipstick or flour. Telling me, awkward and frizzy-haired as I was, that I looked beautiful.

When it was time to open presents, hers were always my favorites. Books, usually -- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott when I was little. Later, the Bronte sisters and poetry. And always, always Readers' Digest Condensed Books from her own shelf.

Grandma was not a conventional type of Italian nana; she preferred decolletage to housedresses, heels to oxfords. She smelled not of pasta and sauce, but of Tabu, her signature fragrance. She was artistic, painting china and doing elaborate needlepoint. She believed in her talents and loved the praise she received when she showed them off.

She also believed in me. Perhaps because of the early loss of my mother, I was slow to trust. In a book of poetry Grandma self-published when I was a young teenager, she called me "aloof," a word that stung at the time, but was probably accurate. And yet she, along with Grandpa and her parents, persevered. They loved me wholeheartedly and accepted that I loved back cautiously.

As I grew into my teens, I began to lower the wall that had kept me from being as demonstrative as I so wanted to be. I could reach outside myself and visit on my own after school, to sit in Grandma's kitchen as she baked. We would talk about boys I liked, about my schoolwork and my plans for college and for life. Grandma had quit teaching when she married, and she told me again and again to work, and to keep working. She kept trying to make me believe I was beautiful, but she praised my brains more.

When you're a child who has lost a parent -- even if you have the most wonderful parent-substitute -- you are different. The effortless way Grandma and her family accepted and loved me made me feel less so. Names and labels are important to children, and labeling relationships was a big deal to me. I may not have had a mother, but I had a Grandma. She called me her granddaughter. She went a long way toward making me feel whole.

It was hard to let her go. It still is. She died in the early hours of Christmas morning after having spent Christmas Eve surrounded by all of us. My sister and I had stroked her smooth skin and told her how lovely she was. She wasn't able to speak, but her dry lips shook a little, and she smiled.

I think of that moment as I move around my kitchen. I'm not much of a cook, but I'm making trays this Christmas, the way she did -- different kinds of cookies, even candies if I can manage it.

I wish I has told her, when I had the chance, how much I appreciated her for loving me. For being my Grandma. She would have told me it took no effort at all -- that God had given her three grandchildren, and I was simply the eldest of them.


  1. Lisa, this is so wonderful and brought tears to my eyes.